Bussing for a More Just Budget

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

On his PBS program Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers recently featured a segment about the “Nuns on the Bus” tour that took place this summer when a group of Catholic nuns boarded a brightly lettered bus and zigzagged their way across nine states, from Iowa to Washington, D.C. The nuns had set out on a two-week journey of faith and compassion, seeking to draw national attention to the plight of the poor. Their purpose was not so much to inspire people to acts of private charity as to ring the bell for social justice. Their specific target was the federal budget passed this spring by the House of Representatives, crafted by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, a Tea Party hero now the Republican candidate for vice-president.

The ostensible objective of the House budget is to forge “a path to prosperity” by cutting government spending and thereby getting the federal deficit under control. But was this the real aim the budget’s proponents had in their hearts? Budgets are usually written in an arcane jargon that only trained economists can understand, but the nuns had evidently done their homework and had realized what the budget would do. They could see that behind its claim to serious fiscal responsibility, the budget would actually bolster the wealth of the ultra-rich while passing on the bill to just about everyone else.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the House budget would reduce the federal deficit through a package of austerity measures that gains 62% of its savings by slashing programs that benefit low-income groups. Among other things, the plan would change Medicare to a private voucher system with no guarantees of affordability. It would slice $810 billion off of Medicaid and repeal healthcare reform. At least $463 billion would be chopped off other mandatory programs that serve low-income Americans, and at least $291 billion from parallel discretionary programs.

Of most concern to those involved with food justice, the budget would eliminate Feed the Future, an initiative to help countries improve agricultural production and nutrition levels, and it would scale back SNAP, the domestic food stamps program. The consequences of this could well be tragic. As of June, almost 47 million Americans, or 15% of our population, received food stamps; for six million people, in fact, food stamps are their only source of income. On the House budget, funding for food stamps would be cut by $133.5 billion over the next ten years, more than 17%. This would knock eight to ten million people off the program.

People who now survive on a substandard diet could be driven over the cliff into malnutrition or even starvation. For people of any religious conviction, this should be unacceptable. Paul Ryan has said his economic vision is inspired by his Catholic faith, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops thinks otherwise. In a letter to the House the bishops wrote that “deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test.”

The deficit hawks who rally behind the House budget insist that the shortfall in government spending on food aid could be compensated for by religious institutions offering more in charity to the poor. But the Christian advocacy group Bread for the World has called the bluff on this proposal. The group estimates that to replace the funding withdrawn from SNAP, every synagogue, church, mosque, and temple in the country would have to raise  an additional $50,000 every year over the next ten years, which would have a devastating impact on their efforts to address increasing need.

Proponents of cuts in federal spending on programs that benefit the needy offer three main arguments for their position. One is economic, one political, and one social. Each of these arguments is as flimsy as a feather and can be easily rebutted.

The economic argument, the bedrock for the budget plan, holds that decreasing spending on social services is necessary to reduce the federal deficit. However, while reducing federal debt is certainly critical, programs that help the poor should be spared as a matter of moral principle; for many people these programs are almost literally a matter of life and death. Fiscal responsibility should not be achieved by abrogating social responsibility, a moral imperative that trumps narrower pragmatic considerations. Under present conditions, to forsake the right and just for the expedient would be an act of cruelty.

Moreover, the claim of the deficit hawks that their goal is deficit reduction is belied by other provisions in the budget. One doesn’t need a doctorate in math to see that lowering taxes on the super-rich, maintaining government subsidies to fossil fuel corporations, and escalating defense spending won’t help to reduce deficits. Tax expert Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice, projects that over the next decade the House budget plan would actually lead to bigger deficits than under current law.

The political argument rests on the assertion that federal aid programs conduce to big government, which the conservatives see as a giant threat to personal freedom. The cry of danger, however, is misplaced and premature, for there is no compelling reason to regard the size of the government as inherently problematic. Like a knife, government can be used either for good or for ill. Dangers arise when government abuses its power, which it does when it intrudes on our private lives, violates international law, and strips us of our civil rights—ironically, actions that the budget’s supporters have endorsed. When, however, people’s lives are jeopardized by an economic system that’s as compassionate as bullets, government incurs the obligation to serve as their final resort in meeting their vital needs and maintaining their human dignity.

The social case against federal aid rests on the premise that it encourages dependency on the largesse of a profligate government. This argument is a canard, which draws its appeal from the debunked image of the “welfare queen” who drives around in a Cadillac while pocketing government hand outs and welfare checks. Contrary to this myth, many of those who depend on social services work hard, often for long hours five or six days a week. The crux of the problem is simply that many jobs don’t pay subsistence wages. The minimum wage is far from adequate to support a family, and it’s not unusual for employers to cheat their underclass employees even out of their meager wages. Those who do not work don’t simply hang around at home because they expect the government to feed them. They don’t work because jobs are few and hard to find, or because they’re chronically ill, or because they are single moms who must look after their kids or an elder relative. Poverty is rarely the result of laziness and irresponsibility. Far more often, it’s the result of a rigged system that pins people down and slams doors in their faces.

Fortunately, although the Ryan budget has passed in the House of Representatives by a near party-line vote, it has not yet been approved by the Senate, which is still held by a Democratic majority. But its passage in the House is a signal that we can expect to see repeated efforts made to enact a federal budget with similar skewed and misguided priorities.

In the final analysis, the debate over how we should reduce the national deficit—whether by cutting social safety nets or by increasing revenues and shrinking defense spending—boils down to the bigger question of the kind of society we want to create. Our answer to this question in turn rests on two very different assumptions about human nature and the means to establish the good society.

In one vision, human beings are essentially self-interested agents driven by a narrow concern for their own well-being. In this picture, people exist as individual atoms in a social network that serves primarily to enhance their private good. The key to social progress is untrammeled competition in the global free market. Competitors should be free from external regulation, which merely suppresses their initiative and blocks the march of progress. Because people have different capacities, society is necessarily stratified. Inequality is natural and pragmatically justified. The weak, slow-witted, and less resourceful have only themselves to blame for their fate. When the free market operates without constraint, the talented will flourish and their prosperity will trickle down to those at the bottom. In this way, according to this vision, a free market also conduces to the moral good.

In the other vision, human beings are essentially social creatures who thrive best in community. Beneath the selfishness that governs much human behavior there lies at our core a deep intuition of our essential unity, which issues in acts of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrifice. Competition may be a spur to economic growth and technological innovation, but there are other values which should take precedence. Foremost among them are compassion and concern for the good of others, which both express our essential interconnectedness.

In a healthy society the competitive impulse must be moderated by cooperation. Society flourishes best when we all flourish together, and often this is only possible when government actively intervenes to safeguard the vulnerable from the vagaries of an unregulated market. In this picture, the government represents our collective will, and we all have an obligation to empower it, according to our means, to help the poor and needy. As we are all part of a single social organism, the state must see that everyone is provided at least with a clean environment, a home, nutritious food, healthcare, and a decent education. This is not a matter of government charity but of social justice. It’s also the key to a harmonious society in which the doors of opportunity are open to all.

Between these two visions, it’s the second that corresponds with Buddhist values and a Buddhist perspective on the role of the state. The early Buddhist texts conceive the ideal ruler to be the “wheel-turning king” who rules righteously and provides righteous protection, shelter, and guard for all in his realm, including the birds and beasts (Anguttara Nikaya 3:14). Among his duties is to eliminate poverty by ensuring that all citizens receive the basic material requisites of life (Digha Nikaya 26). Transposed to a modern democracy, this task would naturally fall on the elected government, which is thus obliged to protect the vulnerable and alleviate poverty.

Of course, the final solution to the problem of poverty does not lie in programs that distribute funds, food, and other provisions to the poor. The final solution is jobs, good jobs that pay adequate compensation, along with guarantees that even the most menial types of work pay a truly living wage, one substantially higher than the minimum wage. This proposition, too, has a precedent in the early suttas, which stipulate that the king must provide the citizens with the means of earning a decent living (Digha Nikaya 5).

The key to good jobs is opportunity, and in today’s world the doors of opportunity are opened by education. It thus falls to the government—whether at the federal or state level—to improve the standards of public education and guarantee that all children have access to good schools with rigorous programs and capable teachers. But for such social transformation to be possible, leaders with courage, vision, and conviction must step forth to fearlessly promote wise and compassionate policies. This above all is the crying need of our time.

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